New book savages education policy-making

Friday, September 17th

An explosive – in education policy terms, at least – new book published today offers a series of highly newsworthy insights into the political process.

“Reinventing schools, reforming teaching” by John Bangs, who until this summer was head of education at the National Union of Teachers, and the Cambridge professors John MacBeath and Maurice Galton, comes full of quotations from some of the leading movers-and-shakers of the New Labour years.

Anyone reading these extracts will end up distinctly unimpressed with the way education and politics have intersected over the last 15 years.

Among the book’s revelations, some of which I comment on below, are:

-A claim by  Mick Waters, former director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that the exams system is “diseased, almost corrupt.” Exam boards, competing in a market place for schools’ business, sometimes implied to their customers that their exam was easier than their rivals’, he said. He also criticised the boards for endorsing/publishing textbooks on their own exams.

Mr Waters says: “Before I went for this job, I used to think that all this criticism of exams that they were being dumbed-down was unfair. You know, the old argument, more people passed than ever before. Since I’ve been there, I think the system is diseased, almost corrupt. I don’t mean QCA or Ofqual or anybody. We’ve got a set of Awarding Bodies who are in a market place. In previous jobs, I had seen people from Awarding Bodies talk to headteachers implying that their examinations are easier. Not only that, we provide the textbooks to help you through it.”

I think whether you describe the system whereby competing exam boards seek the business of schools, who are working to the demands of politicians, all of whom have some interest in results rising or at least not falling as “corrupt” or not, it is not healthy. In my book, I quote the board Edexcel, which in 2006 advertised a range of new science GCSEs to teachers in the following way: “More chances to succeed. Our curriculum enables all students to perform to their best…students can be assessed at any time, allowing them to be tested on material when it’s fresh, and can take multiple tests before submitting their best performance”.

Last year, I reported how Edexcel, in a teachers’ guide to an engineering GCSE says: “Find out why Edexcel is your best choice for better results.”

While, as I say in the book, in many ways England’s exam system is admirably well administered, bringing enviable technical knowledge to the process, it is crazy that this has been allowed to happen. It is akin, perhaps, to a football referee saying “play in my games, and you’ll score lots of goals”. To understate, it should not be exam boards’ role.

Mr Bangs suggested at the press conference to launch the book yesterday that the solution was to move to a single exam board. I think this would also have downsides, however. The structural problem with the exams system is that those with influence both on the “demand” side (schools) and “supply” side (exam boards and the government) all have an interest in seeing grades rise (or in the case of competing boards, at least not to have their exams seen as harder than their rivals’).

For me, as has been said before, a better solution would be to ensure that voices outside of the chase for grades – a strong regulator, and those who will use the qualifications as checks on what young people understand, such as employers and universities – are given more influence. The Government should also be taken out of the process by using sample tests as the main mechanism by which national standards are checked, so that the chase for better grades – which does not benefit pupils when it happens nationwide – becomes less of an end in itself.

Right, back to the book…

-Sandy Adamson, former head of the standards division in Labour’s Standards and Effectiveness Unit, criticises primary test targets as “stupid”.

He says: “It was the delivery mechanism that was the problem and the stupidity of targets, unobtainable targets, simply pulled from the air and then applied to every school in the country. Twenty thousand primary schools and the majority of reaction was ‘this is unachievable’ and for a substantial minority it was never achieved.”

Mr Adamson also claims Labour lost the confidence of the teaching profession “in the first 12 to 18 months”. “Talked, talked, talked at them. Command and control. Told them what had to be done and the way it was going to be done.”

-Estelle Morris, the former education secretary, justifies Labour’s policy of “naming and shaming” struggling schools in political terms.

She says: “I think naming and shaming of schools gave two clear messages; in the eyes of the public politically it put it on the side of the users of the services, not the producers of the services; and secondly it gave the message to the teaching profession that we weren’t the same Labour party as last time we came into power but we would have a different focus.”

To this observer, she seems to be saying: schools were used to serve politicians’ needs. Am I alone in finding this, put in those terms, as outrageous?

It is, though, in line with a statement in the 2007 book by Sir Michael Barber, the former head of Tony Blair’s “Delivery Unit”. He cites the “name and shame” plan as evidence that the party would be “hard as nails” [with teachers].

– Former Downing Street speechwriter Peter Hyman said that Tony Blair believed that Alastair Campbell’s “bog standard comprehensive” remark had helped give the party “some definition”.

-Sir Mike Tomlinson, who led the two-year review of secondary qualifications whose central recommendation was rejected by Tony Blair on the eve of the 2005 general election, says there is “nothing rational about decision-making and policy-making at all”.

– Kevan Collins, former head of the Primary National Strategy, says the introduction of academies in the early 2000s “segmented the profession”, undermining an attempt to focus on “universal language of teaching and learning” as the focus moved towards “creating certain types of schools”.

– Stephen Byers, another former school standards minister, is also reported as having written to Professor Robin Alexander, the Cambridge academic, “expressing his welcome for the co-operation of academics but attended by the caveat – only to the degree that they supported government policies.”

– Mr Bangs also told the press conference yesterday that the book shows none of his interviewees, from across the political spectrum have confidence in Labour’s Every Child Matters/Children’s Services agenda.

He did praise aspects of New Labour’s record on education, including its school buildings programme and, possibly, its literacy and numeracy strategies. But…well, there is a lot to chew over here. I hope to post a review of the book here in the next few weeks.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not terribly shocked by Mick Walker’s comments. As someone who worked at QCA and was closely involved in the accreditation of qualifications it was clear that the increasing commercialisation of exams was always going to put pressure on an already fragile system. The problem now is that the system is broken and we need a radical review to ensure we can fix it so that trust is restored. I’m not yet convinced that a single exams board is the answer but we may need fewer organisations whose approach is not undermined by the profit motive.

  2. You write:

    ” But…well, there is a lot to chew over here. I hope to post a review of the book here in the next few weeks.”

    How can you be so insouciant and laggardly about a book which apparently spells out in black and white, with names and job titles added, what everyone since the 1988 Great (sic) Education Reform Act knows.

    As Sandy Adamson above is quoted as saying “It was the delivery mechanism that was the problem and the stupidity of targets, unobtainable targets, SIMPLY PULLED FROM THE AIR and then applied to every school in the country. Twenty thousand primary schools and the majority of reaction was ‘this is unachievable’ and for a substantial minority it was never achieved.”

    No wonder the private sector wanted none of this garbage.

    In short, generically the same cr*p as they mis-spoke and mis-read over WDM and Iraq. Save that the teachers of England, the parents of England and the children of England only got screwed whereas the people of Iraq were bombed back to the stone age. By a “left wing” government captained by a charismatic leader.

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